Tattoo removal program provides fresh start
Published: Monday, February 4, 2013 at 5:02 p.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, February 5, 2013 at 1:25 p.m.
Cris Pulido was once a walking billboard for violence.
Thick black tattoos marred his neck and sprawled down his arms, back and legs. The symbols and slogans pled allegiance to the sureños. Broken stars and phrases promised trouble for rival norteños.
Just one look at him might start a fight.
"Without saying words, it was a challenge," said Pulido, 30, who grew up in Santa Rosa and now lives in Novato.
But since 2010, Pulido has been chipping away at that identity during the slow and painful process of removing his tattoos.
Each month, about 40 teenagers and adults like Pulido fill the waiting room at a Santa Rosa clinic for Clean Slate, the city's tattoo removal program run by Social Advocates for Youth.
They arrive to erase allegiances to gangs, former lovers and pimps. They arrive to remove obstacles to jobs. They come to undo what once seemed like indelible choices.
"People don't stare anymore," said Pulido, who has endured 18 sessions in about two years, with breaks to allow his skin to heal. "People treat me normal now."
Today, the thick black tattoos on his neck are barely visible.
Entering its fifth year in Santa Rosa, Clean Slate uses laser technology to remove tattoos through a painful procedure that hurts more than getting a tattoo.
The process takes months and sometimes years to diminish a tattoo, depending on the size, quality and ink of the tattoo.
Since 2008, 15 young people have completed the program and a current roster of 70 people are undergoing treatment. Twenty-seven have dropped out.
Young people, ages 24 and under, pay a $50 one-time fee and give 25 hours of community service before their first session. There is a long waiting list for older adults, who pay $65 per session.
It is a massive commitment for youth, who must continue showing up month after month for a painful procedure.
But if waiting lists and attendance records are any indication, the pain and commitment is no obstacle for the young people eager to get rid of tattoos that are holding them back, said Toni Abraham, program manager for prevention services with Social Advocates for Youth.
"For all of them it's a barrier to employment, and for some it's about erasing bad memories," Abraham said.
The young people waiting in examination rooms on a recent day at the Southwest Community Health Center pulled up sleeves and shirts to reveal tattoos they got sometimes by force or fear.
They pointed to slogans they agreed to when drunk and high. They were inked by acquaintances in bedrooms or strangers in garages.
When her name was called, Jessica, 24, of Santa Rosa kissed her 3-year-old daughter and left the child in her grandmother's lap.
As she stepped into an exam room, Jessica said she didn't know the tattoo a man convinced her to let him ink above her shoulder blades five years ago was a white supremacist slogan used by prison gangs.
She was drunk and high at the time. She was devastated the next day when she found out what it meant.
She tried to hide it, but it wasn't always easy. One day, a tank top revealed the tattoo to a woman sitting behind her on the bus. The woman spit on her.
"How am I supposed to explain to someone that I'm not like that?" said Jessica, who asked that her last name not be included because she's looking for a job. "I felt unsafe."
Jessica, now 19 months sober, held her breath as Christina Chan, a nurse with Monarch Laser Services contracted by Clean Slate, began her seventh session.
The process involves the zap of a laser that sends concentrated wavelengths into the skin. The light is emitted at certain wavelengths designed to travel through the skin but heat the ink, shattering it into particles the body can eventually absorb.
With rapid-fire zaps, Chan traced Jessica's tattoo with the laser's light. Jessica squeezed her eyes shut as her skin raised into red welts.
"It definitely hurts more going away," said Mike Haiman, chief of dermatology at Kaiser Permanente Medical Center in Santa Rosa.
Haiman helped get the program started in 2008 and has since volunteered his time each session to consult with patients.
"Here you have young people who want to improve their lives, but they have this blotch of ink barring them," Haiman said.
Young people compared the pain to a thousand wasp stings, repeated snaps of an elastic band or the stinging spray of bacon grease. But it dissipates quickly with an ice pack.
Next, two sweet-faced teen boys, Pedro and Eduardo, walked into the examination room to face the pain together. Their last names are being withheld to protect them from gang retaliation.
One week out of juvenile hall, they each decided to cut ties to the Santa Rosa gangs that put battery, assault, public drunkenness and gang enhancements on their rap sheets.
Pedro held out his wrist for the nurse, who swiped an antiseptic swab over the word inscribed four years ago when he thought he'd always belong to a gang: Forever.
"I was in deep," Pedro said.
But by age 17, with several stints in juvenile hall and a 9-month-old daughter he adores, Pedro said he now has a different vision of his future.
"I want to give her the life I never had," Pedro said. "You feel responsible. There's a life now other than your own."
Pedro's friend grabbed his hand as the young man braced for the laser's bite.
Clean Slate is primarily funded by the Mayor's Gang Prevention Task Force through Measure O public safety sales tax dollars. Kaiser funded a $19,500 grant to get the program going in its first year and an additional grant the next year.
But last year, Clean Slate funding came up short and it had only enough to hold six tattoo removal sessions, half the normal amount. The cuts were "devastating" to youth in the program, who knew that meant their tattoos might linger an extra six months or a year, Abraham said.
The program has resumed its monthly sessions and Abraham said she hopes to build a more reliable funding base and eventually buy a laser machine to reduce its costs.
The program is essential for youth like 19-year-old Julie Borja of Sonoma.
Borja grit her teeth and grasped Abraham's hands as Chan, the nurse, readied the laser wand.
The pain was nearly unbearable for Borja, who clenched in agony during the procedure. But the tattoos on her hands, neck and chest are painful reminders of a period in her life she's battling to leave behind.
"They have to go away, there is no other option," Borja said.
For more information about Clean Slate, call Social Advocates for Youth at 544-3299 ext. 238.
You can reach Staff Writer Julie Johnson at 521-5220 or julie. firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @jjpressdem.